A decade after the United Nations repealed what was arguably its most troublesome resolution -- the 1975 equation of Zionism with racism -- Arab and Muslim countries are threatening to put it back on the UN agenda.A senior UN official said yesterday that the Zionism-is-racism issue is the most explosive of several incendiary matters threatening to derail the UN World Conference Against Racism in South Africa in August.
"Thus far I have not seen it come into any official document, but it's obviously an issue in the background [and] there are some people pressing for that kind of language to be used at the conference," the official said.
A resolution that "condemned Zionism as a threat to world peace and security" and "a form of racism and racial discrimination" was passed 75 votes to 35 by the UN General Assembly in 1975, against a backdrop of conflict about oil prices and with heavy pressure from the Eastern Bloc and Third World supporters of the Palestinians.
The resolution stayed on the books -- and was one of the prime reasons for the erosion of U.S. support for the UN -- until 1991, when it was repealed by a vote of 111 to 25.
Generally, Zionism is the belief that Jews have the right to a state of their own in Palestine. Those who believe it is racist argue that Judaism is a religion, and that to give Jews, regardless of where they are born, an intrinsic right to a homeland in what is now Israel discriminates against Palestinian Christians and Muslims indigenous to the region.
The argument that Zionism is racist has popped up in UN circles periodically since 1991 -- pushed by Lebanon and Syria, for example, when they opposed giving consultative status to Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization, last year at UNESCO, the UN cultural agency.
But the fighting that has raged in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since September (killing at least 360 Palestinians and 65 Israelis) has given it a new lease on life.
It resurfaced at a recent meeting of Arab non-governmental organizations preparing for the conference. It was also discussed at official preparatory meetings in Tehran. Conference organizers are hoping it stays in the margins in South Africa.
"It becomes a question of whether people are so angry with unfolding events that it would be put on the table," the UN official said, adding that any country or bloc that did raise it would do so conscious of its "destructive force."
Jewish groups are already bracing themselves. "Without a doubt, there will be at this conference a strong lobby to raise this resolution yet again," said Karen Mock, president of B'nai Brith Canada and a likely Canadian delegate. "There is a large Arab lobby at the UN; a number of countries and a number of votes."
Certainly, the issue remains sufficiently divisive -- utterly condemned by Jews and many Western countries, but supported by some extremist groups and developing countries -- that it could derail the gathering.
"Any equation of Zionism with racism would be catastrophic," said David Malone, president of the International Peace Academy in New York and a former Canadian ambassador to the UN. "No single measure adopted by the UN . . . has done the institution more damage than Zionism-is-racism."
He said any introduction of the idea to the conference would have a similarly harmful effect, turning a potentially constructive global push against racism "into an ugly and ideological slugfest. . . . This deserves to be suffocated near birth; to be killed early."
He thinks it is unlikely that many countries would be willing to formally advance the resolution, even in the context of frustration over the recent fighting in the Middle East.
A spokesman for Hedy Fry, Canada's Secretary of State for Multiculturalism who will lead the Canadian delegation to South Africa, said Canada would condemn any move to equate Zionism with racism, and that Ms. Fry believes most participants in the conference sincerely hope to see the meetings succeed.
The last two world conferences on racism -- in 1978 and 1983 -- were considered failures, producing no consensus statement and stalling on issues such as race-related refugee crises and compensation for slavery.
The compensation issue threatens to loom large again at this conference; both Afro-descended peoples and indigenous peoples around the world are organizing on the issue of monetary compensation, which seems certain to be a major source of North-South tension. Immigration has dominated discussions at European preparatory meetings, while the question of caste is being hotly debated in Asia.
David Matas, a Winnipeg human-rights lawyer who has attended many global conferences, said he did not think a Zionism-is-racism resolution would make it to the conference in South Africa.
"But a resolution against racism will condemn every kind of racism [except] anti-Semitism, because of anti-Israel bias," he said. "To acknowledge the existence of anti-Semitism is to acknowledge the need for Israel. The big problem in South Africa will be to discuss anti-Semitism at all."
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